Many years ago, I stepped into an elevator and saw the following sign: "If what you have isn't making you happy, why will more of it make you happier?" It was a sobering morning. And it was a gift and a reminder about the limitations of ownership. Wouldn't it be better to be an
inquiring mind than an acquiring one? Can we appreciate something without having to own it? After all, Ethics of the Fathers - our subject of study until Shavuot - reminds us that the more we own, the more worry we create for ourselves.
Vivek Shanbhag is the author of a new small gem of a novel, Ghachar Ghochar. Shanbag has been called an Indian Chekov, and it's not hard to see why when you read this story of a family unraveling. They were a small but close family, united in their poverty and an us-versus-them approach to the world. When they open a wholesale spice company on the brink of their ruin, they suddenly find themselves wealthy. Everything changes. They move out of the old neighborhood, convinced they will visit often and maintain the old relationships that they soon forget. Their close-knit bonds begin to fray under the pressures that ownership creates. The lassitude that sets in from not having to work hard or work at all is responsible for the destruction of not one marriage but two. The narrator makes a general observation about money: "It's true what they say - it's not we who control money, it's the money that controls us. When there's only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind."
I thought of Shanbhag's words in the context of our quote above. "Marbe nekhasim, marbe da'aga," bemoans Hillel in the Mishna. The more possessions, the more anxiety. When you have little, there's also little to worry about. The more you own, the more you have to maintain, care for and protect your assets. You become suspicious of anyone who might damage your portfolio or your status. You no longer own things. The things begin to own you. It's no wonder that the central protagonist of another novel, Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler, changes her life by reducing what she owns, thing by thing, until she lets go of it all. What may seem nightmarish to many becomes a source of liberation for her.
Hillel's saying expands far beyond this terse aphorism, as Hillel explores why more of what we have will not necessarily make us more whole. Hillel rejects too much sexuality, materialism, triviality, lewdness and theft - none of which can lead to any good. He also includes areas where more of something will be more beneficial to the human condition: "The more Torah the more life, the more schooling the more wisdom; the more counsel the more understanding; the more righteousness the more peace. If a man has acquired a good name he has gained something which enriches himself; but if he has acquired words of the Torah he has attained afterlife."
There are certain things in life we cannot get enough of, primarily in the arena of wisdom and character. Get enough of those and you get something else that money can never buy: a good name, one that lives after you.
Central to Hillel's challenge is one two-part question: what do you need less of and what do you need more of in your life? I was recently asked an open-ended question as part of an ice-breaker: what would I want to get? The word "get" always confounds me. I often conflate it with greed. As usual in ice-breaker sessions, I panic. Someone else will obviously say something more true, more clever or more funny. Someone wanted a yacht or a bigger house, pretty standard answers. I have all that I need, so nothing material came to me, even as I racked my brain. Who doesn't like buying things? But if I could "get" something, it would definitely be more whimsical like world peace or piety.
Even as I said this, I realized what Hillel really means in his Mishna. You can buy lots of things and spend lots of time and energy with the wrong focus. What you are really trying to "get" is a handle on a life that matters, one that prioritizes goodness and knowledge. The more you invest in it, the more you will want to invest. And that "more" will never be satisfied nor should it. Investing in things is a pre-occupation that keeps taking. Investing in character and wisdom is a pre-occupation that keeps giving. We should want more of it.